It’s 2016, and Blizzard, the world’s foremost MMO company, has delivered one of the most finely crafted multiplayer shooters available. What an interesting time to be alive.
Having spent some time in Overwatch’s beta, I was already eagerly anticipating the full release of Blizzard’s first new franchise in more than seventeen years. It turns out that my excitement was not misplaced — with Overwatch, Blizzard has truly re-ignited my interest in online shooters. Filled with character and polished to a mirror shine, this exceptional game feels like the pinnacle of Blizzard’s modus operandi: to take a well-known formula and present it in a fresh, accessible way. A way that you didn’t even know you wanted until they showed it to you.
Let’s talk about spawn rooms with countdown timers. If you’re going to put them in your game, you should take a leaf from Overwatch’s fantastic team starting points. It sounds like such a small detail, but in a game so focused on encouraging team coordination, the opening moments of Overwatch’s rounds are a sincerely effective means of helping players to view each other as cooperating allies, instead of rogue agents who happen to be wearing the same colours. By having players wave and gesture to one another, toss basket balls (or grenades) into hoops, and generally make a mess of detailed, physics-enabled scenes, Overwatch compels players to interact with each other in a way that isn’t just shooting them in the face. It’s just the lead-in needed to start the round off on the right foot, and gives you the sense that you and your team are in this fight together.
Spawn rooms are just one of the ways Blizzard masterfully nudges players into working together. It’s a good thing, too, because Overwatch generously rewards teamwork while sparing no quarter for the unorganised attempts of chaotic players. Strategically combining the unique abilities of each of Overwatch’s 21 heroes is always the recipe for success, while lone-wolfing is a surefire way to wind up back in the spawn room. That said, it’s not like playing with friends is the only way to go. I’ve had many successful public games, and have seen constant examples of players making decisions that benefit the team as a whole. Smart cues, like a “Team Tips” notice that warns when players are drafting an imbalanced team of heroes, are helping players to help each other win. It’s great to see players assemble themselves in ways that aren’t self-motivated. At the same time, it’s rewarding to be the player who swaps classes willingly to give the team a better chance in cases where there are too many snipers, or not enough support classes on the roster. Overwatch, uniquely, is apt to make your team feel like exactly that — a group putting forth a concerted effort to make the next round their own.
It’s a marvel that Blizzard have successfully crafted 21 interesting heroes that each sport fantastically creative, memorable designs. It’s even more incredible that every character boasts strengths and abilities that make them feasible and enjoyable. While Team Fortress 2’s nine classes had the spectrum of gameplay covered in a way that made imagining even a single extra class difficult, Overwatch capably provides an ensemble of characters that offer mechanically unique play without overlapping in the slightest. Because every hero feels so good to play, there’s no compelling reason to “main” any single class. In fact, it’s much more exciting and successful to swap heroes as the situation dictates, countering the enemy team’s strategies with counter-strategies of your own. Is Bastion raining down turret fire and preventing the team from pushing forward? It might be time for Reinhardt’s colossal, damage-absorbing shield to safeguard your compatriots as you inch forward to victory. Is the entire enemy team hunkered down on the capture point, presenting an unassailable front? It’s time for D.Va to send her mech hurtling into the fray, releasing a devastating explosion that has foes clambering to disperse and giving your team the time needed to wrest back control of the objective. The endless ways that such a thoughtfully designed collection of classes can engage with each other is the primary reason I keep returning to find a match.
The maps on offer here are well-designed and gorgeous to look at. A bright, futuristic take on a variety of real-world locations are draped in Blizzard’s tell-tale sheen of quality and attention to detail. Playful references to Blizzard’s other properties abound, making scouring the environment a joy when you’re not going head-to-head with opposing forces. Most importantly, Overwatch’s numerous environments are logically constructed and easily readable. Studying these maps closely and understanding how players are likely to navigate them will be what distinguishes the very best of players. Thankfully, Overwatch’s initial offering of 12 maps all feel worthy of such an endeavour.
Those maps are shared across Overwatch’s three game modes: Assault, Escort, and Control. Centred around either capturing and holding points or delivering a payload across a winding level, these modes have already been well-established by the likes of Team Fortress and a myriad other team-based shooters. That they haven’t been re-invented or revolutionised here gives the sense that Blizzard is keen for players to take in what is an already appreciably deep game thanks to the large selection of heroes. The focus here is clearly on encounters between players — objectives are important for winning, but they are smartly allowed to fade into the background, at least while Overwatch is still new. I’ve no doubt that in what is sure to be the long future of this game, Blizzard will add more complex and original modes once players are accustomed to the nuance of what’s already on offer.
Overwatch is a shooter that promotes friendly cooperation while stepping over the obnoxious pitfalls other games of its ilk suffer. That’s because it avoids overemphasising kill/death ratios and doesn’t attempt to peddle a try-hard, edgy attitude. It’s a game inspired by classic shooters and modern games alike, a game of monumental skill that will push even exceptional players to their limits, but at the same time refuses to alienate average players. For a shooter, it totes an oddly sincere and even hopeful tone, something that starts to make sense when you consider Overwatch is the product of an inhumanly lengthy, tiresome, and famously troubled development. Thankfully, Blizzard have reached the other side with a shooter that is likely to be enjoyed for a long, long time to come.